Friday, May 18, 2007

The Pan Shop that Isn't

The traffic moves fast on the Eastern Bypass Expressway that runs on the Periphery of Calcutta. Vast open space envelops this road on both sides, which is rather strange if one considers the population density of this mega-city. Cruising down the road as dusk descends one notices that most of the road is well lit with halogen street lights.

There’s however a stretch of road, somewhere in the middle, where the lamp posts suddenly disappear for a length of about two kilometers. The only light comes from the headlights of cars rushing past in two directions. Riders scarcely notice this at the pace that they move through this. The road is straight and extra-ordinarily wide here to eliminate any chance of a traffic jam. Few ever know how close they come everyday, as they pass through this stretch, to one of India’s best kept secrets.

If one knew, one would notice, that this place rarely has any walkers or bikers. In fact the only thing that breaks the surrounding darkness is a dimly lit and ramshackle pan shop appearing roughly mid-way through this stretch. Perched on an elevated mound around 20 yards away from the road, one would notice that besides a bunch of hanger-ons there are never any customers. On closer inspection one is surprised by the fact that the shopkeeper and those that hang-out change frequently.

In case someone is curious to park the car and stop to buy anything, one finds that the not only is shop invariably out of stock of the commonest of items but also the fact the shop keeper and the crowd are actually quite rude. Hang around a little long the situation starts appearing quite nasty. People rarely stop and almost never return. Probably that’s why not many notice the elevated dirt track that runs on the right side of this shop.

A car that drives off the expressway onto the dirt road finds itself stopped by a heavy chain barrier that forms a check-post of sorts a little way down. As the car comes to a halt, people seem to appear from no where and surround the car. Speaking in rustic Hindi one of them shall demand ones business there with unconcealed hostility. A few mis-adventurous people who found themselves there without any business have had a rather unpleasant experience. However, those that have been able to produce a proper letter of introduction from the Ministry of Home Affairs can witness a remarkable change in the demeanor of these people. The rustic Hindi is immediately replaced by polite but business-like English as identity is verified and re-verified on a mobile computing unit that is connected through a highly secure wireless connection to one of worlds largest data banks. The procedure takes about twelve minutes during which time the passengers remain under the watchful eyes.

Once satisfied the barrier is lifted and the car rolls down the dirt part until it reaches a locked metal doorway to something that looks like an abandoned storehouse. A second and longer identity confirmation is done by people in army fatigues who no longer make any pretense of hiding the automatic rifles. This check typically takes sixteen to eighteen minutes. This is followed by a thorough search of the car, which includes opening both the hood and boot.

The passengers are invited to step out of the car after the search. At this time, one of the uniformed men shall get behind the wheels and drive it off to the back of the storehouse into some hidden garage. The door opens into a small enclosure where both male and female security guards are on duty to perform a physical frisking. Few of even the frequent visitors know that from the chain barrier till the physical is performed, not for a second is any of the visitors hidden from the cross-hairs of at least three sniper rifles. This enclosure opens to a wide reception area.

On the wall behind the receptionist deck there hang the brass insignia of Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. Under that in plain steel letters is written a simple word – INSECT.

The Indian Security Taskforce: Arguably the most secret and feared defense organization of this planet…